Americana: Relative Readability

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The strange story of federal grants for strange studies goes on. In last week's installment, University of Virginia English Professor Eric D. Hirsch received $137,935 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a standard for judging the "relative readability" of writing.

Over the next year, Hirsch will employ eleven graduate students who will rewrite a series of student papers and supposedly make them easier to understand. The original papers and the rewrites will then be given to separate groups of readers who will be timed on how fast they read the two versions. "A text's intrinsic effectiveness is the proportion between its effectiveness and that of a synonymous version which is optimally effective," says Hirsch. "Effectiveness is in turn defined as an inverse measure of reader effort." In more readable terms, the less time it takes someone to read the paper, the more readable it is.

By putting several hundred papers through this process, Hirsch hopes to develop a new method of grading. Says he: "If it takes two minutes to read the good version and 2.3 minutes to read the original student version, that gives you a proportion of 87%, meaning the student's paper is 87% effective."

What about writers like, say, Faulkner? "Faulkner is difficult to read," admits Hirsch, "but you could not say what he was trying to. mean any other way, so he would have to get 100 in relative readability."

Sound confusing? Well, even Hirsch has a few doubts about the project. "It's complicated and new, and it might not work," he says. "If it doesn't work in practice, I guess I will have wasted a lot of time and some graduate students will have gotten paid for a year's work."